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Interview: The Quadfather eyes London 2012

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Originally published on: 14/10/11 14:51

For the benefit of those who don’t know, summarise wheelchair tennis for us.
Wheelchair tennis has just three divisions; Men, Women and Quads, which I think is great. Otherwise, tennis is tennis. Everything’s the same. You can take the ball on the second bounce if you want but generally you don’t. We try to take it on the first bounce to give the opponent less time. The rules are the same, the focus is the same, the tactics are similar. You find out what their weakness is, and expose it.

What’s the difference between Quads and men’s wheelchair tennis?
We have less power. I lost the power and the grip and the actual function of my right side. My left side is okay, but to play quad you must have three limbs affected. The name suggests its four, but it is in fact actually three. Quads is a growing division and we keep raising the bar, changing the parameters. At the end of the day I play the game because I want to be better. I’m changing my game, changing my strings, changing my rackets and ‘coming into the 21st century’, as my coach says! I’m an old style player and I’ve been playing a long time so to change to the new style is quite difficult. There are a lot of newcomers. Great Britain’s got quite a lot of upcoming players as well, so that’s very encouraging and more challenging for me – as I say because I’ve been playing a long time – but that’s the fun, that’s what keeps me going.

You started playing at 30, how has the game changed in that time?
I had my accident when I was about 19, over 30 years ago when we didn’t have wheelchair tennis, certainly not like we have now. We’ve seen an evolution in tennis, youngsters now can go straight on the NEC World Circuit and there’s a tournament every week of the year. I play all the big tournaments. We’ve seen quite a big integration and I think the ITF have done quite a lot of work here. There is still a lot more to do. The time is right to be more integrated in the Masters Series events and with the main tour because the infrastructure is already there. It’s just breaking down the barriers – the people in charge I suppose – because we know for a fact that the general public want to watch the power, the grace, the speed, the camaraderie of wheelchair tennis. While it still has the cut-throat nature of able-bodied ATP and WTA tennis, we still have a friendliness and empathy. We all have a story, quite a lot of them are heart-wrenching stories and they’re good to recount because that’s also how we learn.

Tell us about the camaraderie?
In the old days we used to go to the bar and have a drink, have a beer, and have a chat about things. Obviously as the game has evolved it’s a lot more professional now. Instead of going to the bar we’ll go to the coffee shop and have a decaffe latte or a powerade! But it’s still interesting to talk about how people got hurt. Some of the stories are horrific. But you think about those stories and how people got on court. Some used to play before and think ‘why shouldn’t I play just because I lost my leg?’ It’s so empowering when you see what they’re doing. When you get on court, obviously you’re just playing tennis. It doesn’t matter what happened to you or your opponent. It’s a power game, it’s a mind game, it’s a tactical game and I just love the challenge of it. It’s like playing chess.

You and Dave Wagner regularly exchange the No.1 and No.2 spots, are you two the Roger and Rafa of Quad tennis?
I suppose we are! David’s a talented player, pushes for every ball. He’s the defender and I’m the aggressor. I’m probably more the Federer and David’s the Nadal. When I’m on and I’m doing first strike then I win. Dave does the opposite to me and he actually plays a lot of tournaments. When we get into events like the US Open he’s match tight, while it takes me time to get that focus, that killer instinct at the first strike. I’ll often play a tournament before a big tournament – that tournament is a training tournament to focus on the main one.

I actually play as little as possible, tournament-wise. I have compulsory tournaments – the Masters and the Grand Slams – and then it depends which year it is. Obviously we’re in the penultimate year to the Paralympics, so I’ve been playing a lot more tournaments this year. You have to qualify – qualification finishes next may – and then I’ll be aiming to get the top seeding.

What’s the thinking behind playing as few tournaments as possible?
At the end of the day, tennis could be a short-term career. If you get an injury you’re out, or you have to manage it. I’m not getting any younger. I train specifically for the sport. I’m not a big weights man. I’m on court training five days a week for anything between 2-6 hours a day. I do hand cycling too. But it’s about being specific about the tournaments, and training for those. You can’t just blank it, go out and play. You’ve got set aside tournaments and accept that there will be losses. I can’t win every game I play. It would be nice… but there are certain things I’m only interested in winning.

Who do you play in training?

I play my coach, Stuart [Williamson]. I also play against Ade Adepitan (Television presenter and Wheelchair basketball player) and I have a couple of other hitting partners. Stuart will also bring in people – specialists – to make sure I’m challenged. Stuart is my full-time coach. He is employed by the Tennis Foundation. He tells me where to go, what to do, what we’re going to highlight.

What’s the difference between Grand Slams and Super Series events?
The only Grand Slams in Quads are at the US Open and Australian Open. Only the men and women divisions players play at Wimbledon. All our tournaments for the top 100 are Super Series events. There are two events at the US Open – the first is a Super Series, the one after is a Grand Slam.

What do you think of Esther Vergeer 429-match winning streak in the women’s division?
She’s a phenomenal athlete, there’s no doubt about that. On one hand you’ve got to say that its amazing for one athlete to be so dominant. On the other side you’ve got to look at the other girls – they’ve got to do something about it! If they’re looking at her and saying ‘she’s unbeatable and indestructible’ then she’s never going to lose. They should be looking at it and thinking ‘what is her weakness and how can I exploit it?’. At the end of the day she’s still an incredible athlete and a lovely person!

How did your life change after winning Paralympic Gold in Athens in 2004?
It didn’t really. The Paralympics is a four-year road, nearly every day you’re thinking about something to do with tennis. It’s a very selfish thing. The commitment is unbelievable, not just mine but that of my family too. I won gold in Athens and then the week after that my wife and I lost our first child. I have mixed feelings about it – the complete euphoria of winning, followed by the depths of despair. It was the first ever gold medal in wheelchair tennis for Great Britain and I shall obviously never forget it, but it didn’t really change my life. I went back to my day job. I’m not going to be a millionaire playing wheelchair tennis!

On that note, the prize pot for wheelchair tennis at Wimbledon didn’t increase this year while prize money did increase in most other fields. How do you feel about that?

I think that’s about par. Wheelchair tennis is still an addition at the moment. It’s still an option, lets say. The US Open increased their prize money this year, but the total pot is still probably only 1% of the total prize money on offer. We don’t pull the same crowds as [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal and [Andy] Murray, so we cannot expect to be on par, but if they actually want wheelchair tennis to grow there has to be full inclusion of the sport in the Masters and the Grand Slam tournaments. There really has to be a percentage increase in prize money to enable more players to come into the sport. It’s an extremely expensive sport, what with the costs of travelling the world, hotels, entry fees, the tennis chairs, spares, cost of repairs to the chairs, rackets, strings, clothes and a coach. You don’t get the same endorsements as able-bodied players so you need the prize money to help offset the costs.

Is that why it seems to be an older man’s game – because of the expense?
Yes, but also it’s also about disability and when you’ve had your accident. It’s a lot harder to find youngsters who’ve had disabilities to concentrate on one sport – they’re into all sorts of things. I didn’t find wheelchair tennis until I was in my 30s.

How much longer do you think you can continue to play at the top level?
It depends if I’m enjoying it, if I’m still winning. If I am, I’d love to go to Rio in 2016. But lets see what happens in London first.

Talk us through the physical toll playing the sport has on your body?
It’s the stresses and strains of pushing on the shoulders. That’s where it helps to have a good physio and sports masseur who can get you back on the straight and narrow afterwards. The looser you are, the less muscle strains you get. It’s just making sure you manage it properly. At some point there will come a time when it might be too much for my body to take. I’ve still got a life to lead and I’ve got a young family as well so I’ve got to stay fit and healthy for them.

Looking ahead to 2012, what do you think of the Paralympic tennis venue at the old Eton Manor Sports Club?
It looks fantastic. They’re still building it, but hopefully in January we will go. It’s very exciting.

Does it take anything away from the occasion that it’s not at Wimbledon?
If anything it’s better because it’s based in the Olympic Park so it’s much more inclusive for us. It will be brilliant – cant wait!

How do you like your nickname, ‘the Quadfather’?
It’s brilliant. Ade thought of that. It came from a training session when I was in a very grumpy mood. To lighten it up they put music on and all sorts and I really couldn’t be doing with it. Then they started thinking of names for me, like Victor Meldrew, then Ade came up with that.

Channel 4 is the official host broadcaster for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Peter Norfolk appears in ‘Best of British’, the new 10-part documentary series airing this autumn on Channel 4 following Paralympians and those hoping to be on the road to 2012. For more information, visit www.channel4.com/paralympics

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